2021 NZNBL Round 1a preview: Trio of matches to tip off new season

A TRIO of highly-anticipated matches will tip-off the 2021 New Zealand National Basketball League (NZNBL) season, which has come around quickly after what was seemingly an eternal wait since last year’s successful NZNBL during a time where most of the world was in lockdown. The top New Zealand basketballers took centre stage across the globe due to the nation’s success with handing the COVID-19 pandemic, and the six teams from that competition – Taranaki Mountainairs, Franklin Bulls, Nelson Giants, Auckland Huskies, Manawatu Jets, Otago Nuggets and Canterbury Rams – are back. They are joined by successful franchises, Wellington Saints, Southland Sharks and Hawke’s Bay Hawks.

OTAGO NUGGETS vs. WELLINGTON SAINTS
Saturday, April 24 @ 7:30pm
Edgar Centre

It is absolutely fitting that the first match of the brand new season pits the reigning premiers up against the most successful team in history. In what was a challenging year for everyone, the Otago Nuggets took out the title in 2020, and will be hungry to go back-to-back with a full season, and complement of teams back in action for 2021. There might be a score to settle for Wellington Saints fans, who will no doubt want to remind the Nuggets of the superiority they have held over the competition in the past decade, winning six titles between 2010-19, and having another three runners-up efforts. In short, 2013 was an outlier as the Saints went to reach every deciding playoff final in that time.

The last time these teams played was way back in 2013 before the Nuggets disbanded, which saw the Saints win 97-72 in that encounter. Sam Timmins was a big driving force for the Nuggets in 2020, and whilst the reigning premiers will be missing some of their stars, the likes of Darcy Knox and Richie Rodger will be ones to watch this season. Tohi Smith-Milner, Taane Samuel and Ken Tuffin were unsurprisingly amongst the top players last year for their various sides, and they all team up for the Saints in this clash, making it a mouth-watering encounter.

FRANKLIN BULLS vs. AUCKLAND HUSKIES
Sunday, April 25 @ 7:30pm
Franklin Pool & Leisure Centre

Two of the newer sides in the competition, the Franklin Bulls and Auckland Huskies both showed some serious potential in 2020, and whilst they fell short of making the final, they could be proud of their efforts. The Huskies have had quite the journey in terms of relocation of the past couple of years, but they got the Auckland faithful behind them, and will be keen for another Battle of the North which is a fledgling rivalry between the sides.

Who could forget the long-range shooting and overall class of up-and-comer Isaac Davidson, as the Bulls have a number of players to keep an eye on in 2021, such as Dane Brooks and Denhym Brooke. Josh Selby is the big inclusion, with the ex-NBA guard set to light up the court for the home side. Tom Vodanovich was outstanding last year and he returns to the Huskies lineup in 2021, though he will be around some fresh faces. After a promising season in 2020, Nick Barrow and Reuben Fitzgerald will be among the names to keep an eye on, though another ex-NBA talent in Chris Johnson is a huge get for the club.

NELSON GIANTS vs. SOUTHLAND SHARKS
Monday, April 26 @ 2:00pm
Trafalgar Centre

Unfortunately 2020 did not go to plan for either of these sides, with Southland Sharks opting not to compete in the NZNBL, while the Nelson Giants copped injury after injury early in the season which derailed their season. They ended up losing in the first elimination final to Canterbury Rams after finishing fifth at the end of the regular season, so the Giants will be keen to improve on that effort in 2021. The Sharks have had plenty of time out at sea and will be ready to feast, having had success in 2013, 2015 and 2018 amongst the Saints’ golden era.

Donte Ingram is the name that everyone will be keen to see front up for the Giants, as the excitement machine has headed to the NZNBL after representing Loyola Ramblers to the NCAA Final 4. Otherwise predominantly local, the likes of Tom Ingham and Nic Trathen were some talents who really stood out in 2020. The Sharks are one of the teams to beat with Dom Kelman-Poto‘s emergence from impressive player to star in 2020 and then returning back to the Sharks for the 2021 season will be a storyline in itself. Toby Gillooly‘s finals campaign for the Rams wrote itself last year in a match-winning effort against Auckland Huskies, while veteran guard Courtney Belger and Alonzo Burton are other names to remember this season.

Picture credit: NZNBL

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